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To be alive is to be motivated. At any given moment in time, you have one of two motivating factors influencing you:

1. The pursuit of a reward: Greek philosophers like Aristotle would tell us that there is no such thing as a completely selfless act. Humans ever and always are motivated by the pursuit of their own good. There is really nothing wrong with this. To ignore “The Self” is to cease to exist. When someone says, “I didn’t want to do X, but I did it anyway,” they are deceiving themselves. The reality is that they did want to do X, but their statement acknowledges the fact that it was not for the direct pleasure but a reward beyond the pain. This is an important concept to understand if you are going to understand what motivates you in life. Many people endure painful experiences in the hope that it will produce something positive in the end. When we do stupid stuff, we are acknowledging ahead of time that the end result will not be good, but we are willing to sacrifice the future for the immediate pleasure of the moment.

 
2. The avoidance of pain: No one likes to hurt. Even people that intentionally cut on themselves or engage in some self-destructive activity are ultimately attempting to avoid pain. The truth is they subject themselves to a lesser pain to avoid something they imagine would be unbearable. For instance, individuals who struggle with eating disorders will often say that their malnutrition and hunger pains allow them to avoid a sense of helplessness or lack of control. It is the lack of control that is unbearable to them, not the sense of starvation!

 
This is the logic behind The Death Drive, a concept articulated by Freud, but named byWilhelm Stekel using the greek word, Thanatos. Thanatos in Greek mythology was the God of Death. In psychological terms, it is the counterintuitive urge within us to destroy. Think about why when you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or on the top of the Empire State Building you are both compelled and repulsed by the possibility of jumping. Imagine a child building a sand castle on an ocean shore. When they have completed it, their next action is often to stomp all over it! As humans, we are fascinated by that moment when all things come to an end.

 

I believe there are two reasons for this destructive urge within us:

 
1. Aggressive Power: The first reason humans do stupid stuff is to foster an innate desire to assert power and control over a situation, even if that means destruction. “Because I can” is a phrase repeated by many an individual who willing engages in a destructive act. In essence, the action becomes an adolescent-like retort to every parent of society: “You can’t tell me what to do!!” Sometimes we speed, steal, lie, cheat, get drunk, curse, or fight simply because someone tells us not to. We want freedom, even if we are restricted to the freedom of self-destruction.

 

2. Immediate Redemption: The second reason people often choose to do stupid stuff is to experience immediate redemption. Everybody enjoys the do-over, the mulligan, the clean slate, or the false start. We all need a second chance, but when things get messy, we find it easier to change plans, locations, relationships, jobs, and all other circumstances to avoid ongoing suffering. Unfortunately, Redemption’s road is often long and arduous and the people who look for the quick fix or escape often find themselves repeating the same struggles over and over again.

The Death drive can be channeled in two directions:

 

1. An Inward Focus:We see this inwardly destructive tendency in those who consciously or unconsciously enter abusive relationships similar to those of their past. They find some sense of power in the familiarity of the situation, even if it is self-destructive in nature. They also hope for a do-over, a chance to fix a problem that has surfaced in a current relationship with the same old solutions they tried in a previous one.

 
2. An Outward Focus: The outwardly focused death-drive becomes a means of asserting power aggressively over others. Abusers often act on this drive. The 90’s rock band, Nickleback, had a song wherein the lead singer describes his love of all the degrading things his girlfriend does during their sexual encounters only to conclude in the chorus that the challenge of “figuring her out” was not as difficult as he thought it would be. Ironically, the last verse of the song twists his love for her into hatred. The implication is that he is now on to the next conquest, thus feeding his inner desire for the do-over, a new opportunity to assert his control and assuage his own helplessness and shame by inflicting it on others.

 
Feodor Dostoyevsky, the brilliant Russian novelist who wrote Crime and Punishment, provides a powerful description, if not explanation, of the death drive in action through his character, Nastasya Filipovna, in his novel, The Idiot. Though loved and proposed to by the purest and most noble character in the story, Prince Myshkin, she chooses instead to debase herself with the vilest individuals in society. Dostoevsky reflects on her behavior through Myshkin’s character:
“She ran away from me. Do you know what for? Simply to show me that she was a degraded creature. But the most awful thing is that perhaps she didn’t even know herself that she only wanted to prove that to me, but ran away because she had an irresistible inner craving to do something shameful, so as to say, to herself at once, ‘There, you’ve done something shameful again, so you’re a degraded creature!’ …Do you know that in that continual consciousness of shame there is perhaps a sort of awful, unnatural enjoyment for her, a sort of revenge on some one.”

So how do we fight against the death drive?

 
1. Confront your rage: People who do stupid things to themselves or to others usually harbor a deep-seated anger. Counseling can help to uproot this anger and begin to address it in a healthy way. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. The only way you will be able to stop punishing yourself or someone else is to acknowledge and be aware of the source of your anger and begin the process of managing it successfully.

 
2. Commit to the long-haul: There is no quick fix. Slow down and accept some of the momentary suffering that you may be experiencing. Some of the stupidest things we do are actions taken to relieve immediate suffering without taking the time to consider what our current pain might be teaching us for the long-term successes waiting for us.

 
Question: What about you? Where does the death drive rear its ugly head in your life? What solutions have you found for overcoming our human tendency to do stupid stuff in the moment? I hope you remember that there is always redemption to be had. It just might be a little farther down the road than you originally thought. I hope you can say that it is worth the wait!

Have you ever heard the song by REM, “Everybody Hurts”? Well, it’s true! We all go through difficult seasons in our lives, either because of the things others do to us or because of the things we do to ourselves. The people in our lives play a vital role in whether or not we have the strength to get back up on our feet and keep moving through life’s journey. I was considering the types of people that wait for us on the way down. Who are they and how should we respond to them. Here’s my list:

The Vulture: This is the person who is openly antagonistic. They have been waiting for this moment as long as they have known you and they have no qualms about letting you and others know their pleasure in your pain. This is the boss that can’t wait to fire you, the frenemy who posts the embarrassing picture on their Facebook account, the sibling who uses you to get in good with mom and dad, the church member who wants you off the pulpit, the journalist who smears your public image. The list could go on and on. Nine times out of ten, the best option with the vulture is to keep your head high, ignore them, and distance yourself from any further interactions. Let your actions be louder than your words, be the better person, and trust that they will learn their lesson from someone else someday. An old proverb says, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine!!”

The Vampire: The vampire is definitely an antagonist, but in a more subtle way. They pretend to be your friend, invite you to open up to them in the midst of your struggle, and then take advantage of you in your weakness. They are smooth and seductive. Think traveling elixir salesman or corner prostitute! And they may not be selling anything material. They might simply want you to buy into their philosophy about life, feed their psychological need for power, or use you to assuage their own hurts. Your suffering is only a means to accomplishing their own purposes in life. They will suck your blood and keep coming back for more if you let them. The way to protect yourself against a vampire is to hold your cards close to the chest. You might be suffering intensely and they always seem to be right there ready to help, but smile and make them believe you’re doing just fine without them. Tell the salesman politely you’re not interested at this time and then hang up the phone! Don’t wait for the rest of the sales pitch.

The Voyeur: The voyeur doesn’t necessarily have a hidden agenda, but they will milk you for all the juicy details of your struggle. After a while, you get the sense that they really don’t care about you. They just love a good story. And trust me, someone who loves a good story is usually a magnificent story teller. The voyeur loves being in the know and spreading news. They feel better wallowing in other people’s suffering. Here is one way to test whether or not someone in your life is a voyeur: tell them something exciting and positive that has happened in your life and see if they take as much interest. You will know very quickly who your true friends are by who is able to celebrate with you, not just mourn with you.

The Freak: This person does not have a malicious motive. They simply “can’t handle the truth!” (Said in an aggressive, airy, Jack Nicholson voice). Usually, the freak is someone very close to you who suffers when you do. They love you desperately, but freak out when you’re in pain. They are empathetic to a fault. You wish they’d take your shoes off after one lap around the track, let alone a mile. With these people, you may have to share burdens gradually over time. Let the issue sink in so that they have time to process it and come to terms with it. In doing so, you will create less damage in the long term.

The Fixer: The fixer is the opposite of the freak. Lots of solutions. Very little empathy. I knew someone who did informal counseling who said, “Look, I’ll meet with you for one session. You do what I say? Great! You don’t? I’ve got better things to do with my time!” Now, to be sure. Individuals like this might have a lot of helpful wisdom to pass on, but you need tough skin and the ability to take everything they say with a grain of salt. They have a cookie cutter solution to every problem. Some advice might be worth chewing on and some of it, well, in the words of the comedian, Jim Gaffigan, treat it like a Hot Pocket: “Open package and place directly in toilet!!”

The Father:  The sage. The guru. The sensei. An older individual who is not in competition with you, has a deep yearning to mentor and genuinely wants to be a listening ear and an advisor in your life. Draw from them deeply, but realize that they may not be entirely able to relate to your circumstances. Every generation is faced with nuances in the suffering and pain they face. Culture, technology, styles, and relationships change over time, so look for a wise man that is willing to remain teachable and empowers you to tell your story. Remember as people age they naturally become fixers (minus the attitude), in part because they have had a lot of experiences we have not. The good ones remain humble in spite of all their knowledge. Hold onto them like a precious jewel (or your i-phone these days!!)

The Friend:  This person doesn’t have all the answers, but they can relate to your struggle. They care about you, want to see you succeed, and will continue to walk with you every step of the way. There is loyalty here. A history. A brotherhood or sisterhood. You may have disagreements, but if someone butts into your inner circle, they will fall on their sword for you. Cherish these relationships. Be that kind of person to someone else. If you have one or two of these people in your life, you can weather any storm.

Question: What kinds of people wait for you when you fall? What kind of person are you when others fall?

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I am a board certified psychiatrist, author, speaker in private practice with Southwest Clinical and Forensics in Dallas Tx. I also serve as an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. I have a passion for helping people through painful circumstances, be they physical illnesses of the brain, psychological conditions of the mind, social problems of everyday life, and/or spiritual crises of faith and worldview.

Disclaimer

All information provided is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a professional evaluation or treatment. If you are experiencing emotional distress, please contact a mental health professional. Dr. Henderson cannot respond to inquiries about prescription refills, or medical or psychiatric emergencies over the internet. If you are a patient in need of assistance, please contact Dr. Henderson’s office directly, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

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